The days of having to rail against runs batted in as a particularly useful indicator of individual offensive value are long behind us. That does not mean there might not be potentially interesting research to do on situational hitting or the like, but simply that the straight-up use of RBI is not something that really needs to be debated.
Nonetheless, it is still interesting to see what sorts of hitters can accumulate high numbers of RBI, something we recognize with an award named for two players who managed big RBI numbers despite less than impressive advanced hitting metrics: the John Carter-Tony Bautista Award.
I started handing out the John Carter-Tony Bautista Award back in 2009, and it has been an annual rite of fall (2010, 2011, 2012, 2013). One can go back and read earlier iterations for longer explanations. The short description is that is measures how much a hitter’s number of RBI might exaggerate (or understate) his individual offensive performance. It does so by simply dividing the player’s number of RBI by his absolute linear weights runs created (wRC). Not all the contenders are necessarily bad hitters, as will be seen. I set minimums of 500 plate appearances as well as 90 RBI so we do not simply get a bunch of leadoff hitters. With the deflating run-scoring environment, I have wondered whether I should lower the minimum RBI threshold. I left it at 90, but it is something to think about for next year.
5. Ian Desmond, 1.154 RBI/wRC, 108 wRC+, .255/.313/.430, 91 RBI
Even taking into account the increasingly tougher run environment, Desmond’s bat has been on the decline since 2012. His walk rate has increased, as it does for most hitters as they age, and he is not quite the free swinger he was back in 2012. however, Desmond’s rate of home runs on balls on contact has dropped since 2012. More significantly, in 2014 his contact rate (and thus strikeout rate) significantly worsened.
Despite those concerns, Desmond still has enough pop to make it count when he does make contact, enough to make him an above-average hitter, which is excellent for a shortstop. Desmond was not better with runners on (105 wRC+) or in scoring position (111 wRC+) than he was with the bases empty (111 wRC+). As one might guess, Desmond’s secret to maximizing his RBI production was where he hit in the order. Most of the year, Desmond his fifth or sixth. The Nationals’ most frequent third and fourth hitters were Jayson Werth (.394 OBP) and Adam LaRoche (.362 OBP).
Yeah, how Desmond got all those RBI is a real mystery. Alert Veronica Mars.
4. Albert Pujols, 1.156 RBI/wRC, 124 wRC+, .272/.324/.466, 105 RBI
Is a 124 wRC+ supposed to be better or worse than (subjective) expectations for Albert Pujols at this point? If we were talking about a player with a different history or contract, no one would really bat an eye. He would just be a first baseman in his mid-thirties who does not walk much any more, but gets the bat on the ball and hits for decent power (for these days) while fighting an increasingly brutal BABIP. A 124 wRC+ from a first baseman may not grab your attention, but it is definitely more than just adequate.
Like Desmond, Pujols did not get his RBI numbers by hitting better with runners on (122 wRC+) or in scoring position (99 wRC+). He was at his best with the bases empty (125 wRC+) this year. Pujols hit third all season for the Angels. The Angels’ most frequent leadoff hitter, Kole Calhoun, was not exactly an on-base machine, even if these days a .325 OBP is above average. But there was this one guy who hit right in front of Pujols just about all season. He had a down year for him with just a .377 OBP. Maybe you’ve heard of him.
3. Evan Longoria, 1.160 RBI/wRC, 107 wRC+, .253/.320/.404, 91 RBI
When Longoria was #4 on this list back in 2011, he was coming off a season during which he played in just 133 games, had only a .239 BABIP, and still finished with 136 wRC+ and 6.2 WAR. In 2012, Longoria was better when he played, but played less than half of a season. In 2013 some of Longoria’s raw numbers took a slight hit, but his power and the increasingly stingy run environment (not to mention his defensive skill) meant that it was still a typically great Longoria season.
In 2014, Longoria played in 162 games for the first time in his career and logged a career-high 700 plate appearances. That would generally be good news, but at the plate, Longoria had the worst season of his career. A 107 wRC+ from a third baseman is quite good, even if one thinks Longoria’s defense has taken a hit. But the lower walk and home run rates have to be a bit scary for the Rays given their investment in Longoria.
Longoria spent most of his time in the cleanup spot this season. He also hit third for about 50 games. The Rays’ most frequent leadoff hitter this year was Desmond Jennings, who does a number of things well, but is not the reincarnation of Rickey Henderson when it comes to getting on base. The Rays’ most frequent number two hitter (who sometimes hit leadoff, as well), was good old Ben Zobrist, who got on base at a decent .354 clip. When Longoria hit fourth, it was often right behind Matt Joyce (.349 OBP).
While that was not a bad situation for accumulating RBI, it was not in the same league as Desmond’s or Pujols’. The difference: Longoria was not good with the bases empty this year (89 wRC+), but did well with runners on (128 wRC+) and in scoring position (112 wRC+). Yes, it is probably random variation.
2. Adrian Gonzalez, 1.262 RBI/wRC, 128 wRC+, .276/.335/.382, 116 RBI
Gonzalez had a nice season relative to his recent past this year. What makes it intriguing is not simply that Gonzale’ wRC+ was his best since 2011, but how he did it. Although he struck out a bit more this season, his walk rate increased a bit over the previous two. Even more encouraging was the uptick in power — his .206 ISO this year was partly based on an increase in his rate of doubles (which probably involves a fair bit of random variation), but his home run on contact rate, which is less subject to randomness, was his best since 2010. Hitting home runs is a good way to up RBI numbers, obviously.
The other way, as you have probably figured out by now, it is to hit in the middle of the batting order — third for fourth is nice, as it gives a frequent number of plate appearances while also (hopefully) doing so with runners on base more frequently. Gonzalez mostly split his time between third and fourth for the Dodgers this season. L.A.’s primary leadoff man, Dee Gordon, was only okay at getting on base this season (.326), but their number two hitter (and sometimes number three when Gonzalez hit fourth), the Yasiel Puig (why doesn’t he get more press?) had a .382 OBP this year. Hanley Ramirez (.369 OBP) also spent a number of games time hitting third in front of Gonzalez.
Not only did Gonzalez have one or two high-OBP hitters in front of him, but he also hit much better with runners on base (148 wRC+) or in scoring position (157 wRC+) than with the bases empty (108 wRC+). Hitting well behind high-OBP hitters, especially when they are on base is a pretty good formula for winning this award. But, of course, it is not alway the best formula.
1. Ryan Howard, 1.406 RBI/wRC, 93 wRC+, .223/.310/.380, 95 RBI
Ryan Howard did not have 500 or more plate appearances in either 2012 or 2013. The last time he did, in 2011, he won. Back then, Howard had a 124 wRC+ and The Contract had not yet even begun. All the jokes have already been made. Needless to say, things have gotten much, much worse. However, we should note that Howard hit much better with runners on this year. And, as in the past, hitting cleanup behind Chase Utley always helps.
The run environment is changing, but still, as as always, a slugger in the right place with hits at the right time can accumulate RBI numbers that exaggerate his individual offensive value.
Just for fun, and to make the point again, here are 2014’s five “worst” hitters with at least 500 plate appearances and 90 RBI by RBI/wRC:
Giancarlo Stanton, .920 RBI/wRC, 159 wRC+, .288/.395/.555, 105 RBI
Mike Trout, .883 RBI/wRC, 167 wRC+, .287/.377/.561, 111 RBI
Victor Martinez, .867 RBI/wRC, 166 wRC+, .335/.409/.565, 103 RBI
Jose Bautista, .860 RBI/wRC, 159 wRC+, .286/.403/.524, 103 RBI
Michael Brantley, .855 RBI/wRC, 155 wRC+, .327/.385/.506, 97 RBI
Matt Klaassen reads and writes obituaries in the Greater Toronto Area. If you can't get enough of him, follow him on Twitter.